How Sleep impacts Brain Health

sleeping on a mattress in water

As important to your health as good nutrition and regular exercise, the consequences of missing sleep begin with diminished daytime function: mood, energy, concentration and reaction time. But, sleepless nights have implications well beyond making you sleepy the next day. Over the long term, it contributes to obesity and the risk of serious illness. Beyond its interplay with brain health issues such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, sleep in healthy, young people also plays a key role in memory formation and consolidation. Many younger patients with insomnia, or insufficient time sleeping, report significant short-term memory problems.

Older adults with dementia often suffer sleep disturbances generally associated with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Now researchers think sleep problems might themselves represent a risk factor for cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. A recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that losing just one night of sleep led to an immediate increase in beta-amyloid in the brain. These beta-amyloid proteins clump together to form the amyloid plaques that impair communication between neurons and appear as a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. While previous studies determined that sleep deprivation elevates the level of beta-amyloid proteins in the brains of mice, this one shows the important role sleep may play in clearing beta-amyloid from the human brain—an important step in understanding the pathology of Alzheimer’s and a potential path to prevent it.

Reverse cognitive decline

More and more evidence shows the critical role sleep plays in maintaining brain function as you age. The question of reversing cognitive decline by improving sleep provides another interesting avenue for investigation. A 2014 study tested a novel therapeutic program for reducing mild cognitive impairment based on the idea that clinical trials in pursuit of a “magic bullet” drug have yielded little but that a combination of therapies that address multiple targets in the underlying pathology of Alzheimer’s might have an additive or synergistic effect. The program included lifestyle changes (including sleep optimization) as well as a regimen of medication and supplements designed to optimize metabolic factors implicated in Alzheimer’s, correct imbalances, reduce betaamyloid, and more. The study was small but showed impressive results. Clearly this combination approach shows promise.

Your brain while you sleep

During waking hours, the brain records more stimuli than it can process. When we sleep, the brain goes to work, making order out of chaos and archiving memories. It does this by strengthening critical neural connections, discarding unimportant ones, and solidifying new memories. We’ve all noticed, and research has confirmed, that “sleeping on it” helps us recall a newly learned task. This explains why people suffering memory deficits can recall a name from forty years ago but not what they had for lunch yesterday. Their brains have become less efficient at making new connections and storing new memories. Better sleep may improve this key brain function. Improve sleep Everyone has trouble falling asleep occasionally. For most of the millions of Americans who regularly struggle to get to sleep or stay asleep, improving sleep habits can restore a restful night’s sleep.

Sleep is important for overall health and especially for brain function. Now, as scientists uncover the mechanisms at work, the opportunity exists to make great strides in preventing and treating cognitive decline and degenerative disease.

Alex Dimitriu, MD, is double boardcertified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and is the founder of the Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine Center in Menlo Park, CA. doctoralex.com

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